A mysterious murder is a surefire way to grab a reader’s attention right from the start of story. It’s a well-worn plot device that comes with its own built-in intrigue and secrets to unravel. It also drops the reader straight into the action and allows the writer to take the story essentially anywhere they please. Where does Suda51 take The Silver Case’s murder mystery? Well, it’s pretty weird.
The Silver Case takes place in 1999 in the “24 Wards,” a planned city at the heart of an alternate-reality version of Japan. The Heinous Crimes Unit (HCU), a small gaggle of detectives that are equal parts awful human beings and incompetent law enforcement officers, are investigating a string of gruesome murders that fit the modus operandi of the infamous serial killer Kamui Uehara. The player controls the nameable main character, the only survivor of one of the most ridiculous depictions of a failed special forces operation I’ve seen in fiction, as the HCU recruits him to take part in the Kamui investigation.
The game is broken up into two parallel and intertwining sets of chapters: Transmitter and Placebo. The Transmitter chapters encompass the primary narrative of the game in which the player guides the main character through the Kamui investigation. The Placebo chapters star Tokio Morishima, a journalist hired to dig up information on Kamui, as he experiences the game’s plot points from a different perspective. In terms of coherence and quality, the two sets of chapters couldn’t be more different.
Each chapter of Transmitter is a single case investigated by the HCU crew, to varying degrees of success, that all tie into the game’s overarching story. These cases mostly revolve around ghastly acts of violence, but also touch on topics like cyber crime and corporate malfeasance. It’s during these chapters that The Silver Case wholly succeeds in immersing the player in the dark and disturbing atmosphere of the 24 Ward’s underbelly in true hardboiled fashion.
Unfortunately, The Silver Case’s attempt at crafting a coherent narrative to accompany the mood established by its stylish art direction falls decidedly flat. The chapters tend to devolve into convoluted collections of scenes where characters say things at each other and events just sort of happen with little logical flow. This is partly because every detective is a jaded antihero archetype that spouts snippy one-liners that don’t seem to mean much of anything. Character motivations and actions, as well as the consequences of said actions, are mostly conveyed through dialogue exchanges after the fact rather than through real-time game events. These ex post facto explanations are required because many of the events make absolutely no sense, neither on their own nor in the context of the game’s story, or simply aren’t conveyed to the player at all.
The Placebo chapters, on the other hand, make a valiant attempt to pull the remnants of a pretty interesting story arc out of the muck. Each of these chapters unlocks after their companion Transmitter chapter is completed, taking the player through the same timeline but through Tokio’s eyes and motivations. They’re mostly well-written, have more interesting characters, and go a long way toward explaining what the heck just happened in the preceding Transmitter chapter. Tokio, by far the most likable character in The Silver Case, acts the most like an actual human being and is the most engaging personality as a result. The dialogue in these chapters is also the most entertaining and is exponentially less asinine and needlessly aggressive than that of Transmitter chapters.
Interwoven within The Silver Case’s murder mystery is a bid at social commentary that is as unsubtle as it is heavy-handed. There are important issues that are touched on here, including corporate social responsibility, renegade law enforcement, idol worship, and the toxicity of the darkest corners of the Internet. Its sobering just how relevant these topics are now as they were back in 1999. However, any messages meant to be conveyed get muddied by The Silver Case’s habit of caricaturing the issues. For example, board members are presented using “evil” wavy art while they spout morally bankrupt, self-serving dialogue. Rather than delivering one cohesive message on a few issues, The Silver Case tries to make a statement on too many topics in too short a play time. The end result feels like a bad student art film attempting to enlighten the player but providing little actual substance.
With all of the negativity I’ve heaped on the narrative I feel compelled to acknowledge the great localization job by Active Gaming Media. The Placebo chapters in particular are wonderfully translated and Tokio’s manner of conversation with others and within his journal are as important as his actions in defining his character. Despite some grammatical hiccups along the way, and acknowledging the challenging source material, the localization was one of the game’s high points.
The Silver Case is presented in a Film Window System with character portraits, dialogue boxes, and the event screen overlaid on a backdrop with constantly shifting elements and color palettes swaps. This was a bit distracting at first, but ended up giving the game its own unique feel that I quite enjoyed. The environments during the limited player control were uninspired and boring, though, and the fact that the game couldn’t decide if it wanted to be an interactive first-person adventure or a visual novel led to an uneven gameplay experience. In fact, part way through it drops the adventure game facade entirely and has the player simply travel to event triggers. Additionally, the puzzles, which started out strong, petered out to an afterthought by the end. To top things off, the clunky control scheme inexplicably requires players to press button combinations to take actions that could be mapped to single button presses.
The Silver Case’s music is certainly one of its other few high points. Composed by Masafumi Takada with additions by Akira Yamaoka, the moody soundtrack seamlessly shifts between tunes that are bouncy, menacing, and poignant, and add depth to their accompanied scenes.
The PS4 version adds two brand new chapters to the story as well: one for Transmitter and one for Placebo. The Placebo chapter is meant to be a new conclusion to the game while the Transmitter chapter acts as a prologue to The Silver Case: Ward 25. Neither add anything of consequence to the experience.
In the end, The Silver Case oozes style yet completely fails to deliver in substance. It has the bones of an interesting story with an intriguing setting that’s never fully explored, but it trips over itself through disjointed narrative that is more tell than show. It may be tempting to attribute this to some deliberate attempt at abstract absurdism, but in truth it’s simply a poorly written and executed script. Fans of Suda51 may very well find something to love in The Silver Case’s erratic weirdness, but those with a passing interest or who are in search of an engaging visual novel would be better served looking elsewhere.